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Deal in Abuse Cases Possible

Orange County bishop says in a letter to parishioners he will push an offer today that could close the gap in settlements.

June 14, 2004|William Lobdell and Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writers

Priests leading services at Roman Catholic churches in Orange County on Sunday read a letter from Bishop Tod D. Brown telling parishioners that the diocese may soon announce a large settlement with the nearly 100 victims of alleged clergy sexual abuse who have sued.

The settlement could be a heavy financial burden on the Diocese of Orange, Brown said in the letter, read at 55 parishes across the county. Though he vowed not to make a deal that would create a financial crisis, the bishop said he hoped to avoid "costly, time-consuming trials where the outcomes are unpredictable."

"It's a very difficult balancing act," Brown said in an interview Sunday. "I want to reach out to the victims, and at the same time, I don't want to shut down the church."

By replacing the traditional homily -- a sermon delivered by each priest on the day's Scripture readings -- with a public statement on the diocese's legal battles, Brown took a highly unusual step that highlights the significance of the potential settlement. Separate from any part it may play in Brown's legal strategy, the letter fulfills the bishop's promise earlier this year for more openness within the church.

Brown canceled plans to attend a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops conference this week in Denver so he could be available during negotiations, scheduled to occur behind closed doors beginning today in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

Court papers show the diocese already has made at least one offer -- about $40 million, according to those close to the negotiations -- during mediation that began last fall. And in his letter to parishioners, Brown said the diocese and plaintiffs' attorneys remain "very far apart" on a settlement amount. The difference is in the tens of millions of dollars, say some of those involved.

But Brown said he would put a new offer on the table today that he hoped would close the gap. He declined to say how much the diocese would offer.

Without a substantially higher offer, "this will be a really short [negotiating] session," said Raymond P. Boucher, a Beverly Hills attorney who acts as liaison counsel for plaintiffs throughout Southern California. But he said he was optimistic about the possibility of a settlement soon.

The sense of urgency is driven by a deadline in late July imposed by the courts earlier this year.

Boucher said he believes that, unlike with the Diocese of Orange, there's "virtually no chance" of negotiating a settlement in the 500 cases filed against the Los Angeles archdiocese in 2003.

He said the high number of cases and insurance carriers in Los Angeles makes the suits difficult to mediate. Boucher also contended that Cardinal Roger M. Mahony has been uncooperative.

"Mahony has misled the public, lied to parishioners and priests" about the pending sexual abuse cases, Boucher said. "He feels safer

A spokesman for Mahony could not be reached Sunday.

Brown's letter to parishioners offered the public one of the first peeks inside a confidential mediation process that began 18 months ago and involves more than 600 lawsuits against the Los Angeles and Orange dioceses.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Peter D. Lichtman has threatened lawyers with sanctions and made them sign a secrecy pledge, designed to stop leaks to the media about the process. Because of the general nature of the comments in the bishop's letter, plaintiffs' attorneys said they believe Brown did nothing to violate the judge's gag order.

"This is an enormous amount of money, and it's critical to let the parishioners know," Boucher said.

Brown said in an interview Sunday that he wanted to tell Orange County's estimated 1 million Catholics where the negotiations stood if there was the possibility of an imminent settlement.

"We wanted to get this out because of the possibility that something will be in the papers on Tuesday," he said.

The largest settlement to date is in Boston, where the archdiocese last year paid $85 million to 552 victims of alleged clergy sexual abuse. The Archdiocese of Louisville pledged to pay $25.7 million to 27 accusers. And the Archdiocese of Chicago agreed last October to pay $12 million to 19 people.

The only California jury to reach a verdict in a clergy abuse case was more generous. It awarded $30 million to two brothers in 1998. The court later reduced the amount to $13 million.

"We are between a rock and a very hard place," Brown wrote in his letter to parishioners. He said he wanted to be just to victims of clergy sexual abuse, but, "I will not agree to any settlement that is not fair and just to all, that is, one which does not allow us to continue to carry out our mission."

Brown also said that it was unclear how much insurance carriers would contribute to the settlement and that if mediation failed, "we will properly and ethically use every legal recourse available to us to protect ourselves against the threat of unfairly large financial judgments against the diocese."

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